Snapshot of a girl who beat adversity

Alexis Tobin takes pictures of friends.

She doesn’t line people up and say “Smile.” Her camera catches changing moods and fleeting moments. The pictures seem to tell little stories.

In scenes that juxtapose the rugged outdoors with girls in dress-up clothes, a viewer may sense a hint of a plot line, but the stories remain a mystery.

What’s she trying to say, this talented teen?

“If they can give me an emotion, I can give them a photograph,” she said.

At 16, the Everett girl has something to show for all of her creative energy. With book-making software from the Web site, Alexis has compiled her pictures into several paperback books.

For one book, “Tea for Two: A Sisters Tale,” she and friends Katie and Denver Donchez, ages 16 and 18, hauled fancy chairs, teacups and a violin into the woods. The pictures were taken in Round Rock, Texas, where Alexis visited after the Donchez sisters moved there.

Another book, “Wide Eyed Girl,” features 15-year-old Taylor Stefanski, in a pretty white dress, posed along railroad tracks in an industrial area of Everett. Taylor looks fresh and young in a grungy old world.

“Everyone loves that picture,” Alexis said of one photo in “Wide Eyed Girl.” It shows her friend Taylor, standing on the tracks looking back as the rail line stretches on ahead of her. The photo says something of the past and of the future, and how teen girls live in between the two.

Alexis, who hates being photographed, has her own story to tell. In her past, some of the road was rough.

“I was making lots of bad decisions, hanging out with the wrong people,” she said.

Kathy Tobin, Alexis’ mother, said her daughter had run away frequently. There were academic problems and substance abuse issues, Kathy Tobin said.

When therapy wasn’t enough, Kathy and Tim Tobin sent their daughter for 80 days to the School of Urban and Wilderness Survival in Shoshone, Idaho. A survival and treatment program, the school specializes in helping teens with behavioral and emotional problems.

“She had to figure out who she is, what she stands for and what her values are,” said Kathy Tobin, a third-grade teacher at Mill Creek Elementary School.

Alexis did well in elementary school, her mother said, but by the end of middle school was on a dangerous path. The wilderness program cost the family more than $30,000, Kathy Tobin said.

“It’s what we needed,” she added. “If nothing else, it really gave her time to reflect. The therapists were great, the instructors were great. And if the world should blow up, I’d want her with me. She learned every survival skill.”

Her true test of survival is back at home, with school, peers and daily life. “I learned a lot about myself. Before, I was never home. I am now,” Alexis said. “And I’m really lucky to have my parents.”

Alexis switched from Jackson High School to Sequoia High, Everett’s alternative school. She loves her publications class, which includes doing photo work for the school yearbook. She’s also taking biology, world history and English.

Kathy Tobin said her daughter has a fledgling business taking senior portraits. “What’s been really nice, she’s done it for a couple of kids who didn’t have money for senior photos,” Tobin said.

“She is a tender heart,” Sequoia adviser Miriam Myers said of Alexis. “She is a very precious young woman, an amazing, creative person.” The adviser has praise, too, for the girl’s family. “They’re incredible parents,” Myers said.

Alexis sees Myers as a lifeline at school. “She sees people as individuals,” the teen said.

“I am so impressed with Sequoia,” Kathy Tobin said. “They look for things kids have a passion for and do well in. I’m a teacher, and I’ve never seen such complete support. It allowed her to goof up and then come back.”

Pick up her photo books, and you can almost feel the girl’s dream, to be a professional photographer. And what a gift she has — adults who believe she can get there.

Columnist Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or

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